danah boyd has often talked about “moral panics” and, espcially, the moral panic over MySpace.com. When the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) of 2006 was being considered in the House of Representatives, she wrote the following:
I found out about my alma mater talking to strangers online in the 90s. I learned about what it means to be queer, how to have I learned about what it means to be queer, how to have confidence in myself and had so many engaging conversations. Sure, i found some sketchy people too, but i learned to ignore them just as i learned to ignore the guys who whistled and honked from their cars when i walked to the movie theater with my best friend. We need to give youth the knowledge to know the risks of their actions, the structures to be able to come to us when something goes wrong and the opportunity to grow up and connect to their peers. Eliminating cultural artifacts because we don’t understand them does not make our lives any safer, but it does obliterate so many positive interactions.
I’ll get back to that later, but thankfully, after DOPA passed the House in July it has gone nowhere in the Senate over the summer and fall up to the recent recess. And as it exists in the first place not so much to address an issue of pressing importance but to score political points, it will almost certainly go nowhere in the Senate’s lame-duck session following the November elections. So that’s good.
What’s not so good are the actions of now-former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL), who was and is a genuine sexual predator, both online and off-. He resigned last week after records surfaced of his outrageously inappropriate sexual conversations over instant messenger (IM) with one particular 16-year-old male House page who apparently wasn’t the first or last. And in the media storm that’s followed and continues, it’s become clear that the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives has known about these e-mails for a year and about Foley’s general tendencies for five years, but never dealt with him.
Well, that’s not quite right – they dealt with him. They kept him protected, so that he could continue to provide votes on bills like DOPA and the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006. In fact, he was the chair of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children. And the GOP are continuing to try to make the whole issue go away.
But it ain’t gonna work. The GOP, if nothing else, have for the last decade been masters of creating and nurturing their preferred media narratives. They’ve been so successful that people – many members of the press included – often fail to recognize that they are not reading or reporting the truth per se but a version of events carefully crafted for political gain. Sure, politicians always do that – but the modern GOP have been the real masters of the form, to the point that people’s perception of “reality” on many issues now hews more to GOP talking points than to observable facts. For instance, “Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.”
Okay, okay. But this post really isn’t about politics. It’s about an aspect and expression of post-reality.
The fact of the matter is this: child sexual abuse is an enormous problem. And bills like DOPA do almost nothing to address this fact, because the 95% of victimes of sexual abuse know their abusers. Sexual predators are almost always either family – spouses of married parents; aunts or uncles – or figures in trusted positions of authorities – church and social organization leaders; teachers; coaches. Or U.S. Representatives – which would seem to be the relevant relationship here (i.e., U.S. Rep. to page, rather than some random online predator).
But – because the GOP [and yes, many Democrats have gone right along on this issue – but it’s clear who’s cranking the handle on this Wurlitzer] is so successful with its manipulations of public opinion, they have convinced a great many people – especially in the media – that online sexual predators are the greatest threat ever to Western civilization. And now “th[is] story is out of control of the spinmeisters” and is now a self-sustaining media sensation in a media context that the GOP and Foley himself created. “Irony” does nothing to describe this situation, really. It’s just perverse.
Which brings me back to the passage I cited from danah at the beginning of the post. The truth of the matter is that teenagers, while often confused about themselves and their place in the world, are not nearly the naifs that the media makes them out to be. The IM exchanges (and really, I don’t feel like quoting them – they’re easy enough to find and you can just take my word for it) make clear that in that particular context, this particular page was definitely creeped out by and cautious towards this particular predator. Which is actually easier to do online, several hundred or thousand miles away from whomever you’re speaking to, and where you control whatever information you give them, than it is if you’re a 16-year-old Congressional page and the creepy predator is a U.S. Congressman who, if not your boss, than is definitely in a position of direct and immediate power over you, and in direct and immediate physical proximity.
And of course, the page never would have this particular predator if he hadn’t been a House page and the predator hadn’t been the Chair of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children. That is where children and teenagers ought to be protected – in those situations where it is actually likely they will be abused. Like, say, the U.S. House of Representatives.